All across Iowa, county fairs are being held. While many offer entertainment for all ages – rides and games for the kids, car races and demolition derbies, musical acts, and more – the staple of all those county fairs lies in the various projects on display by the county’s 4-H members.
County fairs, quite naturally, are bigger events in many of the state’s more rural counties and, even kids living within some of the small towns, are 4-Hers and have projects they nurture throughout the year, preparing to display those projects, and reap blue ribbons, when the county fair rolls around.
But, when you live in one of those small towns, finding just the right 4-H project can be a problem. Long ago, there weren’t projects for pets. Naturally, there wasn’t room for in-town youngsters to have large animals. Steers were out of the question, sheep couldn’t be kept in town and neighbors would rightly complain if you kept hogs in the city limits.
Still, everyone, it seemed, belonged to a 4-H club and most of us in tiny Alleman were no exception. In the 1950s, there were a couple of options – small animals or horticulture.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my lack of knowledge of the plant and animal kingdoms would be put to the test and, one day, come back to haunt me.
Picking my 4-H project became a family activity, well, at least, a father-son project. My dad and I discussed a number of projects for 4-H. I’m not exactly sure how we settled on rabbits. But, we did. My dad was "hands-on" when it came to getting me started. We didn’t buy just any rabbits; we made sure the rabbits we bought had pedigrees.
Yesiree, we had the top of the line and I started with a few New Zealand White rabbits. Some we bought from a breeder in Des Moines and others we purchased, pedigrees and all, from a breeder in Fort Dodge. As rabbits are wont to do, mine multiplied rapidly and my 4-H project soon out-grew the small cages we had. But, dad fixed that. He built a two-tiered, multi-cage rabbit hutch, the tops of each slanted to the back and designed to help keep the hutches clean.
You don’t hear much about the Polk County 4-H Fair, but it’s held each summer before the Iowa State Fair. It’s held at the State Fairgrounds and kids from all over the county – nearly all of them from the rural areas of the county – take over a corner of the huge fairgrounds. Although the practice has long-since been stopped for safety concerns, in the 1950s many, if not most, of the 4-H kids erected cots and actually slept at the fairgrounds for the three days of the fair.
My first year in 4-H, I proudly hauled several rabbits to the fair, only to be disappointed. We learned that my rabbits had buck teeth (my dad was learning right along with me) and the only award I won was a single white ribbon. In retrospect, I’m sure the only reason I was given that third-place ribbon was out of sympathy.
After that, though, things turned around. In the next two years, my rabbits – my New Zealand Whites were now joined by Blue Checkered Giants – I won a total of five grand champion, 26 blue and two red ribbons. I also won the 1957 East Des Moines Businessman’s Club award as best rabbit breeder in the county. I still have the heavy trophy (rabbit on top), the photo and newspaper article that accompanied that honor, as well as all the ribbons.
In my final year in 4-H, I was also asked to bring two rabbits to a make-shift area behind the big state fair grandstand and appear on WOI-TV’s live broadcast from the county fair. Betty Lou McVay would be hosting the program. We visited just a brief moment before going on the air live.
She said she understood how hard it was for kids living within towns to find a 4-H project.
Then she said that rabbits and other small animals were probably about the only ones you could have. And, of course, she said about the only other project was horticulture.
But, I agreed with her and we went on the air. I had two grand champion rabbits facing the camera. Then, Betty Lou asked me why the one was so calm and the other was so jumpy.
"Well," I explained. "The jumpy one is a buck and this other one is a doe and she’s ready to litter."
"You mean, we could have baby rabbits right here on the show?" Betty Lou asked, excitedly.
"Yes," I said, not really understanding her reaction.
Then she went on to ask a few questions about living in town and what projects are suitable.
"Other than rabbits, I’d imagine horticulture is another project you could have, right?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
Then she asked me a jaw-dropping question. She asked me to explain horticulture.
Right there on live television, my ignorance was exposed to everyone watching. I stammered around a little, then I admitted to her and what I imagined were millions of viewers (kids have a way of exaggerating things) that I didn’t know what that was.
I think it shocked her. But, without missing a beat, she explained everything.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. It’s better to admit ignorance in advance than be forced to confess is publicly later.
Horticulture. Oh, yeah, horticulture.